The women plunged into the crystalline depths. Nothing but miles of sky above them and miles of water below, they bobbed around their eight-metre-long rowboat, a pink speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
They’d been immersed in that vastness for months, and their journey would stretch months longer into the foreseeable future.
Known as the Coxless Crew, the women — four on the boat at a time, six on the team total — were rowing, unsupported, across the Pacific.
By the time the United Kingdom-based team would reach the harbor at Cairns, Australia on January 25, 2016, it would be nine months after the paddles first dipped into the water in the San Francisco harbor. Though their journey would take three months longer than they had initially expected, they would become the fastest team to row across the Pacific, as well as the first all-woman team and the first team of four to do so. They would have 13,600 kilometers of rowing behind them and would have spent all but a few of the last 257 days at sea. In the process, the team would set three world records.
But as the rowers swam around their boat in the Pacific, all they knew was the thrill of being suspended on the surface of unfathomable depths. They were aware of their exhaustion from months of rowing in two-hour shifts, aware of the salt sores on their skin from being at sea for so long, aware of the gnawing hunger in their bellies that was never quite satisfied with dehydrated meals and candy bars.
“I don’t think I’ve ever fully understood the enormity of what we were going to do…and now what we have actually achieved,” said rower Natalia Cohen, reflecting on the trip after a month of re-adjusting to life on land.
Cohen, along with teammates Emma Mitchell and Laura Penhaul, rowed all nine months of the journey. The fourth spot on Doris — the name of the boat — would be occupied by Isabel Burnham for the first leg from San Francisco to Hawaii, by Lizanne Van Vuuren for the second leg from Hawaii to Samoa, and by Meg Dyos for the final leg to Australia.
Only two of the women had ever rowed (Mitchell and Burnham, for Cambridge while in school) before agreeing to the challenge; Van Vuuren, Dyos, Cohen and Penhaul, the team leader, all had to learn in the months leading up to the expedition.
Preparation for the trip was demanding. Beyond physical workouts, sports psychologist Keith Goddard created individual and team performance-enhancing strategies for the crew.
“This aspect of our preparation was crucial in ensuring that we were able to get the best out of each other…and avoid any conflicts in the team,” said Burnham, “all very important when there are just four of you on an eight-metre boat for nine months.”
But it wasn’t physical or mental training that topped the team’s list of priorities. It was safety. About to be confronted with the wildness of the Pacific, the women ran through endless “what-if” scenarios before taking off.
“The year that we did the challenge [was] an El Niño year; some of our biggest challenges were adverse currents and lack of normal trade winds,” said Cohen. She attributed these factors to the expedition taking a staggering three months longer than originally planned.
“Apart from that, we experienced everything else Mother Nature threw at us, from the tail end of a tropical depression [to] electrical storms, strong winds, huge 30-foot waves, oppressive heat, and no wind.”
The scariest moments, Mitchell said, were the moonless nights where the crew couldn’t see the waves — waves that rocked the vessel so violently that the rowers were thrown out of their seats.
But for all of the hard times, the teammates said there were plenty of moments of sublimity. Almost constant 360-degree views afforded the Coxless Crew spectacular sunsets and sunrises, watching storms build in the distance. They also had countless wildlife encounters, from birds and flying fish to sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins.
“[There were] two hours where we were circled by a huge whale over twice the size of our boat,” Mitchell said. “[There were] nights where the ocean was calm, the stars reflected on the water, and there was sparkling phosphorescence around our oars.”
But the most memorable moments of the voyage, Cohen said, were ones filled with laughter. Though the women had only come together months before they set out, they worked hard to create a positive team dynamic that lasted the duration of the expedition.
“The time out on the ocean gave us an opportunity to learn not only about ourselves, the strength of our minds and our surroundings, but also how we worked as a team,” Cohen said. “We got to know each other intimately during the nine months and formed a unique bond that few people ever get to experience.”
To ward off the monotony that comes with rowing across a seemingly endless expanse of blue, they regularly switched up routines. They told jokes and stories, swapped rowing partners, and celebrated the little milestones of the journey. The simplicity of life on the boat — their routines and the isolation from emails, texts and social media — brought them close, despite differences in personality and backgrounds.
Being an all-female crew also helped, Cohen said.
“Women are empathetic, efficient, communicative, and emotional,” she said. “I feel there is never a bond of friendship stronger than one of sisterhood.”
Besides teaching the team how to work together, the Pacific expedition brought each of the women a new understanding of endurance and adventure. Waking up and picking up the oars when it was cold and dark and the sea was rough, facing disappointments—like not finishing their expedition in time to spend Christmas with their families back home in the United Kingdom: these were the things that shaped them and their odyssey.
“Adventure is doing something where you find yourself outside your comfort zone,” Cohen said.
“Believe in yourself and how adaptable [you] are physically and mentally, overcome your fear and take that leap of faith. If the challenge seems overwhelming, then break it down into manageable-sized chunks and take it moment by moment, stroke by stroke.”
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